The motorcycle came sputtering up behind them. They turned toward the sound to find a woman on a mission: a mother cradling her son as she simultaneously maneuvered the bike toward their one hope of relief. Her eyes were locked on target. Dozens of tsunami survivors in her temporary housing area had met with the foreigners and found a remedy; she was intent on acquiring help for her son as well.
Nearing the promising strangers, her thumb loosened on the throttle and the motorcycle stalled beside the young dentists. She began to gesture eagerly for their help. When they looked down at the boy in her lap, they quickly recognized with a knowing compassion the pain etched on the child’s face. Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick (2001), Point Loma Nazarene University alum, unpacked his dental tools, numbed the child’s mouth, and got to work extracting an abscessed tooth. Finally free of the ache, the child almost immediately fell asleep. The Sri Lankan mother expressed her deepest gratitude to the dentists for getting her child out of his agony. Then, she repositioned herself on the motorcycle, her pain-free son now asleep in her lap, and drove off toward their temporary home.
These moments of bridging the gap – of linking people with the resources they desperately need – are somewhat of a staple in Dr. Fitzpatrick’s life and career. Altruistic from childhood, Dr. Fitzpatrick always dreamed of a future in medicine. However, his time at PLNU, and later in dental school at Loma Linda University, are what really tilled the soil from which his career and philanthropic work would flourish. Both universities emphasized intentionally caring for others, which left a lasting impact on Dr. Fitzpatrick. He reflected: “I often think of us as getting to be the hands and feet of Christ, and being in dentistry, we are using our hands a lot. We are getting to be the hands, practically, that get people out of pain when they have infections, abscessed teeth, cavities, etc.”
For Dr. Fitzpatrick, tangibly living as the hands of Jesus and caring for the person in front of him has meant remaining curious, open, and creative. He has continuously asked the question: what does providing whole person care look like in dentistry? And he has been diligent in his quest to find an answer. By providing excellent oral care to each of his patients, he has been able to take deliberate note of how eliminating pain and enhancing the aesthetics of a smile can positively impact an individual’s self-esteem and improve their quality of life. His curiosity to find an answer to his question has also led him to notice something else, something unsettling: the larger, imperfect systems in society have played a role in constructing barriers to dental care for many who need it most. Rather than run from this harsh reality, Dr. Fitzpatrick catapulted himself into the heart of it and started pioneering solutions.
“Simply, I feel like we are called to love God, love others, and then go and make disciples. Dentistry is a way for me to use the knowledge and skills I have gained to go and love others and make disciples,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, pinpointing the “why” that fuels his professional endeavors.
“Simply, I feel like we are called to love God, love others, and then go and make disciples. Dentistry is a way for me to use the knowledge and skills I have gained to go and love others and make disciples.”
With a big vision in mind, he began to brainstorm a model for providing free dental services to his neighbors in San Diego. His creative solution? Coffee beans.
In 2013, Dr. Fitzpatrick returned from one of his frequent trips to Nicaragua with 200 pounds of green, unroasted beans and a burgeoning dream: he would start a dental clinic in City Heights that would offer free services to those who would otherwise not have them, and he would help fund the project through the sale of coffee beans. After a successful first roast, Dr. Fitzpatrick got to work selling his first few batches of beans, and CuraCoffee was born.
With coffee sales underway, he wasted no time piloting CuraCoffee’s sister dream, the dental clinic in City Heights. What started out as a coffee-and-donation-funded venture soon gained widespread support, launching the project into an established 501(c)(3) named CuraSmiles. During the pilot of the project, there were numerous stories of joy and gratitude. Many San Diego neighbors received dentures for the first time. Others were finally free of enduring toothaches and jaw pain. Still others were able to chew and eat well for the first time in years. The pilot project proved to be life-changing, not only for Dr. Fitzpatrick but for the neighbors who walked in for dental care and departed with boosted confidence and abating pain. With a model that had already proven its success, the clinic officially opened its doors in March of 2019. Community members can now come to Mid City Church of the Nazarene on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as some Fridays, to receive free, high quality dental care from licensed dentists in San Diego.
While receiving oral care at the clinic, community members might even interact with PLNU students. Dr. Fitzpatrick and his team have established a partnership with the university to give pre-med and dental students an opportunity to explore a potential career in dentistry. CuraSmiles offers a curriculum on basic dental skills and knowledge for students who volunteer their time at the clinic. Upon completion of their hours, students receive a certificate to bolster their resumes for dental school. By mentoring PLNU students in caring for the world – in being the hands of Jesus through the tangible offering of accessible dental care – Dr. Fitzpatrick and his team are gifting the next generation with some of the pivotal lessons he learned at PLNU.
CuraSmiles is now just over two years old, but they are already celebrating the trust they have been able to build within the San Diego community. In Dr. Fitzpatrick’s words, “The community knows we are here now. They know we care about them and their oral health.”
Through great intention, a little creativity, and deep faith, Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick has lived into the dream he set for himself back in his college days, to provide whole person care through the work of dentistry. That care extends into each small detail that forms his life, from the sourcing of fair trade coffee beans that fill the bags of CuraCoffee, to the purposeful investment in the future generation of dentists. By simply remaining open and curious, Dr. Fitzpatrick has found a way to turn a profession into a calling, a life as a dentist into an opportunity to love and disciple his neighbors near and far. And with a little dose of creativity and diligent work, he’s been able to use that calling to bring his deserving San Diego neighbors one of the greatest gifts of all: the gift of a smile.